Boom and Buzz
Despite Thighmasters (1996) and SnackWells low-fat cookies (1993)--or was it because of them?--sales of beef, butter, chocolate, and liquor surged in the mid-'90s. "Comfort food" was the phrase for the artery-hardening meals of fat-laced mashed potatoes, steaks sautéed in butter, and crème brúlée at the vanguard of the trend.
Old-fashioned, slightly shabby Suburban House (911 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville,  484-7775) was never part of the "back to fat" movement--simply because fat never left the building. When we need comfort, we turn to potato pancakes with sour cream, blintzes with sour cream, borscht with sour cream, or a hefty Russian-dressing-dripping Reuben (hold the sour cream). Whatever your particular culinary port in a storm--stuffed cabbage, brisket with gravy, chicken pot pie--it's all there, timeless and at bargain prices. When all else fails, the matzo-ball soup is just the torch to wave in the face of a complete life meltdown, fending it off like the creature from the cult film Zombie! vs. Mardi Gras (1999).
The knickknacks and mismatched kitchen tables and chairs at Mamie's Café (911 W. 36th St.,  366-2997) might put it in the running for homiest restaurant atmosphere in Baltimore, but the inexpensive, down-home menu seals the deal. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, fried chicken, crab cakes, pork chops--if Mama's not around to comfort her baby with some lovin' from the oven, Aunt Mamie's place is right over in Hampden. If you're feeling particularly fragile, however, it's wise to remember that Mamie's kitchen occasionally runs badly off the rails.
For Southern-style feel-good food, we head straight to austere but friendly Micah's Cafeteria (5401 Reisterstown Road,  764-7240) to chow down on meat-and-three. It's a little bit the meat--fried chicken, tangy barbecue--but mostly the three (vegetables and side dishes, in Memphis parlance) that soothe. Smoky, slow-cooked collards, candied sweet potatoes, mac 'n' cheese, ham-infused green beans: It's so hard to choose, why not just get an order of each? Micah's is so reasonably priced you can afford all their heavenly sides and a nice hunk of sweet-potato pie.
Besides being the decade of decadent dining, the '90s were also when ethnic food went uptown, particularly Central and South American cooking. Dubbed nuevo Latino, this style reinterpreted the traditions of Las Americas: Instead of tomato salsa, there was suddenly pineapple-mango-jicama salsa with cilantro, adobo chile, and lime. The movement was pushed by celebrity chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, whose Too Hot Tamales nuevo-Latino cooking show debuted on the Food Network in 1995.
Baltimore's premier nuevo Latino restaurant is the Joy America Café (American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway,  244-6500). Not quite so innovative--or expensive--as when it was established by four-star "visionary" chef Peter Zimmer, it is now run by the Spike & Charlie's empire. Though sadly dumbed down, the Latin/Caribbean menu still contains spicy fried crayfish in balsamic aioli, intense mole-roasted pork, and a duck confit with wild-mushroom risotto. The location (inside AVAM, our favorite museum), the smooth, knowledgeable service, and fantastic harbor view are all bonuses.
The cult of tequila worship is part and parcel of the nuevo-Latino movement. If you don't know your añejo from your reposado, a visit to Fells Point's Blue Agave Restaurante & Tequileria (1032 Light St.,  576-3938) should clear things right up. Begin with a tasting flight of three tequilas chosen from 70-plus different bottles of high-test cactus juice in silver, gold, and mescal varieties. Chef/owner Michael Marx is a fanatic about the stuff, and if you let him guide your selection--which he loves to do--you might just become one too, but then you may never make it to dinner. Which might not be such a bad thing: The menu reads like a dream, but in our experience the food hasn't quite followed through. Still, the plantain-crusted sea bass with mango-habañero relish is worthy, and Marx's signature grilled buttermilk corn cakes with chipotle shrimp are not to be missed. Skip the tepid huitlacoche enchilada (corn fungus: exotic but flavorless, who knew?)--but not the arroz con leche for dessert.
Some of the city's newest and most notable Cuban food is at Babalu Grill (Power Plant Live, 34 Market Place,  234-9898). The reasonably priced menu, which reflects owner Steve de Castro's Cuban roots, offers straightforward classics along with a few nuevo-Latino twists. Don't miss the inventive tuna appetizer--rum-marinated ahi is threaded onto sugar cane skewers, lightly grilled, and served with mango-papaya salsa--or the classic pork-stuffed tamal. Desserts--guava cheesecake, coconut crème brúlée to die for--are decidedly updated versions of traditional dulces.
Every decade in the 20th century was faster than the last, but the '90s witnessed a notable jump in the speed of life. Cell phones and the Internet provided immediate gratification, and the fuel for staying up all night debugging code, shopping online, or downloading MP3s from Napster was caffeine--the cocaine of the '90s. In 1991, there were fewer than 500 coffeehouses in the entire United States; six years later, that number had grown more than tenfold.
Where better to worship the gourmet grounds than Baltimore's retort to Starbucks, the Daily Grind (1720 Thames St.,  558-0399; 501 W. Cold Spring Lane,  235-8118; plus three smaller spots around town)? We miss the board games, mismatched sofas, and cozy, eclectic environment of the Grind's original Fells Point location, but we do appreciate the ability to get an Americano, macchiato, mocha, latte, or whatever whether we're in Fells Point or Roland Park, or even downtown, at Tide Point, or on the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
A more recent entry on the coffeehouse scene is Hampden's small, colorful Common Ground (819 W. 36th St.,  235-5533). The front windows provide prime people-watching spots. For breakfast, there's an assortment of from-scratch muffins (the chocolate chip are the best), and later comes a small but smart menu of salads, soups, and sandwiches. Desserts--all made on the premises--are outstanding. Selection changes constantly, but the fruit pies are always brilliant and the bread pudding is life-changing.
Sunny, airy City Café (1001 Cathedral St.,  539-4252) is one of this town's most attractive venues for seeing, and being seen by, the city's most attractive people. All the caffeinated concoctions a heart could desire are here, from simple espresso to the likes of chocolate Chambord latte. A strong favorite at this Mount Vernon café is the Hammerhead, two shots of espresso poured into a cup of regular coffee (of which there are at least six flavors every day). If your hands aren't trembling too hard to pick up a fork, City Café has dining options to go with the supercharged beverages. The house-made soups, spicy black-bean burgers, and roasted eggplant sandwiches are all good choices. After 5:30 p.m. comes more sophisticated fare--try the porterhouse pork chop marinated in bourbon, balsamic vinegar, and fresh ginger.
The cup of joe wasn't the only beverage to get complicated in the '90s. Along with everyman's stimulant, everyman's depressant underwent its own transformation, as Americans caught on to the fact that beers come in more than one flavor--and that small-batch gourmet beers, brewed with flavorful, high-quality ingredients, are worth searching out. But boutique beers didn't remain hidden for long: The popularity of microbrews grew to the point where even Coors and Budweiser began marketing their own ersatz micro product under assumed names ("Plank Road Brewery" = Adolph Coors). And brewpubs, where the beverages were made on the premises, started to spread. Many had excellent beer and food, though some mediocre operations, with blah beer and worse food, jumped on the beer wagon seeking profits.
For superb food and even better beer, Baltimore is fortunate enough to have the Brewer's Art (1106 N. Charles St.,  547-6925)--home of the ironically named Resurrection Ale, a smooth, heady brew (7 percent alcohol by volume) that has laid many a quaffer low. The even more-powerful Ozzy (7.25 percent APV) is dry but mellow, and all too easy to drink in quantity. There are four or so other house beers, varying by season, plus a sizable list of rare and wonderful "guest beers" from small European and North American breweries. It would be easy to do nothing but sample this Mount Vernon hot spot's Belgian-beer bounty, but then you would be missing its European country fare (seasonally influenced, like the beer). The alewife platter (bread, cheeses, radishes, olives, and pickles) perfectly accompanies the fruits of the copper vats, and it serves two.
The house brews at the Wharf Rat (206 W. Pratt St.,  244-8900; 801 S. Ann St.,  276-9034) change frequently due to the brewery's seven-barrel capacity; aficionados know to ask for a hand-pulled brew from the bar's downtown "beer engine" (which pumps the draft without using carbon dioxide, the stuff that makes it fizzy.) There is a tasting flight of three beers for $3, but the time to visit is "Firkin Fridays," when a small cask-conditioned barrel of ale is opened--a true beer-geek extravaganza. The English-style beers are matched by a British pub menu. Try the fish and chips, and get the "Victoria and Albert" (crab and artichoke dip for two) for a fun go-along; the hearty sausage and beef meat loaf is also smashing.
Hoary Sisson's (36 E. Cross St.,  539-2093), Maryland's first brewpub (born way back in 1989), recently changed owners. The Federal Hill restaurant was just transformed from Cajun into a steak house, but brew master Andy Gmitter stayed on to mind the beer. Dry, malty Stockade ale, signature brew of the old Sisson's, is still on tap, and the changing roster of brews includes an India pale ale, crisp Marble Golden Ale, and guest beers from other regional boutique breweries. Steaks are excellent; there are also chicken, seafood, and pasta dishes. Mussels steamed in Belgian gueuze (oak-aged ale) are the perfect prelude to the "Pigtown Platter" of cheese, pickles, and peppery, locally made sausage.
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Baltimore, MD 21201